Travel Blog: The Untouchable City

by | 03. Jun 2013


The columns of St. Peter Square. Photo by arcspace

By Jakob Harry Hybel

Rome, the indisputable mecca for architects. Forum Romanum, the Vatican, the awe-inspiring Pantheon. Turn any corner in the old city and chances are you stumble across an ancient architectural wonder. How can you possibly compete with that? This is a question architects and city planners have been asking themselves for ages. 

On my recent visit to the great city of Rome, I decided to steer clear of the most famous sights and zoom in on two contemporary projects that both – in two very different ways – have tried to shoulder the heavy burden of adding to the city’s accumulated architectural legacy: Richard Meier’s Ara Pacis Museum and Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI Museum.

A Delicate Addition – Meier’s Ara Pacis

Rome’s building legislation is incredibly strict, demanding thorough archaeological excavations before any new construction. Actually, the Ara Pacis Museum by Richard Meier is the first and only building to be constructed in the heart of the city since the 1930s and the fall of Fascism.

The Ara Pacis, or the Altar of Peace, is in and of itself a controversial monument, which twice over has been used as blatant political propaganda. Originally, to promote the values of Emperor Augustus, and almost two millennia later, it was claimed by the Fascist regime, which shamelessly used it for their own purpose, in their quest for a ‘rebirth of the empire’.


Ara Pacis Museum by Richard Meier & Partners. Photo by arcspace

Ara Pacis Museum by Richard Meier & Partners. Photo by arcspace


Ara Pacis Museum by Richard Meier & Partners. Photo by arcspace

But Richard Meier’s museum, which is essentially a glass-covered exhibition pavilion fronted by a plaza, steps and a fountain, has been no less debated. Ever since its completion, it has faced harsh criticism culminating in 2008 with Rome’s then newly elected right-wing mayor, Gianni Alemanno, furiously vowing to tear it down.

While the fierce critique was perhaps inevitable given the buildings location, it also seems incredibly disproportionate, at least to this observer. Meier’s museum offers an elegant exhibition space that subtly and effectively frames this fascinating monument, while also shielding it from the heavy traffic along the Tiber. And its lightness contrasts the weight of the many Fascist-era buildings surrounding it.


Ara Pacis Museum by Richard Meier & Partners. Photo by arcspace

Ara Pacis Museum by Richard Meier & Partners. Photo by arcspace

A Bombastic Imprint – Hadid’s MAXXI

Traveling about a mile north, you will find Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI Museum, and the furor related to the Ara Pacis is put in further perspective. Right away, it becomes clear that when compared to Hadid, Meier has chosen the tip-toeing approach.

Instead of trying to make a building that fits in and relates to its surroundings and the city’s history, Hadid has made a self-referential sculpture. With its looping volumes and its swooping pathways, the MAXXI seems completely out of step with the measured columns of Forum Romanum.

But unlike the Guggenheim, or other equally sculptural contemporary museums, where the architecture of the container tends to distract from the contents, the exhibition spaces at the MAXXI work surprisingly well.

Despite the MAXXI Museum’s popularity, it faced closure last year after a considerable hole in the museum’s 2011 accounts caused a brutal funding cut from €11 mio. to less than €2 mio. The fate of this very eccentric and prize-winning landmark therefore remains uncertain.


MAXXI Museum by Zaha Hadid. Photo by arcspace


MAXXI Museum by Zaha Hadid. Photo by arcspace

MAXXI Museum by Zaha Hadid. Photo by arcspace


MAXXI Museum by Zaha Hadid. Photo by arcspace


MAXXI Museum by Zaha Hadid. Photo by arcspace


When the Past and the Future Collides

Italy is the country in the world with the most World Heritage Sites and it is the fifth most visited. With so much to preserve and so much invested in tourism, it is no wonder that most Italian cities have focused almost entirely on historic preservation and have banned new construction in or near their city centers.

But whereas a city like Florence seems rather content being a Renaissance city lost in time, Rome appears to be torn – stuck between preserving its cultural heritage while trying to step out of the shadows of the city’s glorious past.

In this way, the Ara Pacis and the MAXXI are both important steps in Rome’s strive for a continuing contemporary relevance. But in light of Italy’s severe economic crisis, it seems unlikely that the city’s many treasures will be rivaled by shiny new architectural wonders any time soon. Good thing there are plenty already.


St. Peter’s Basilica. Photo by arcspace


Pantheon. Photo by arcspace


All photos by Jakob Harry Hybel